It seems almost hard to fathom situations existing outside the COVID-19 pandemic bubble these days. But months ago, back before the coronavirus took hold, voters in Winchester made a statement about their rising tax bills vs. the quality of their schools.
At the March school district balloting, voters cut a whopping $1.6 million from the annual budget proposed by the school board. The idea was that the district’s students had not improved on statewide testing since the 2017-18 school year, a resident argued at the Feb. 6 deliberative session, and so the taxpayers shouldn’t be asked to contribute any more than they paid that year.
The whole idea reeks of a parent saying to a child: “I’ll give you something to cry about!”
The circular reasoning behind the cut ought to, logically, doom the town’s students to the same educational level and same test scores forever. Except there are costs that have risen during that span that the district can’t cut. So any reductions must come disproportionately from other areas. That means they’ll actually have fewer resources to work with. So scores really ought to be expected to go down. Then what? Cut further?
Nevertheless, voters bought it.
The school board said the cuts would mean axing kindergarten, eliminating transportation for high school students and all of the district’s athletic programs and field trips, as well as staffing cuts. They eventually clarified kindergarten, which is mandated by state law, would instead be cut back from full-day to half-day.
Then the pandemic took over all time and space: schools were closed, going remote for the rest of the year; businesses closed, then eventually reopened with restrictions; and the virus raged, thus far killing roughly 400 Granite Staters and 140,000 Americans.
Given that, it’s no wonder people stopped paying attention to Winchester’s school budget woes. But the problem didn’t go away. If anything, given the challenges ahead for the 2020-21 school year, it will be even more acute. The district has cut 23 positions and another three people have resigned, the school board chairwoman says, because of uncertainty over the budget.
And those expected measures remain. No transportation to Keene, where the town’s high school students attend classes. No athletics.
Not all families of Winchester students are accepting that fate, however. The Winchester Sports Booster Club is raising funds on its own to try to keep sports alive for students. And another group, led by Lisa Scoville of Keene, whose stepdaughters have attended Winchester School in the past, aims to raise the $200,000 it costs to bus high-schoolers to Keene (based on last year’s projected budget).
The individual efforts are modest, perhaps — an online auction, raffle tickets, bake sales, a cow plop. The most ambitious piece is a co-ed softball tournament slated for Aug. 15 and 16. But the determination is what matters.
“I hated to see the kids not be able to get to school,” Scoville said. Even so, she’s realistic about the chances of raising that kind of money in a community so hard-pressed that it voted for the cut in the first place, and especially given the overall economic situation of the pandemic.
Perversely, it could be the pandemic that saves the day, though not in a way that would satisfy many. The school board (along with Keene’s) needs to figure out whether its students will even attend Keene High in person this fall; and there’s a good chance school athletics may be canceled anyway due to social distancing restrictions.
When all is said and done, however, the reduced school budget will still be there and taxpayers will still be stuck between a rock and a hard place. Meanwhile, students will still be trying to better their test scores with increasingly fewer resources.
It’s a frustrating situation made just a bit more bearable by those parents and others who’ve chosen to say, “Let me give you something to smile about.”